Reproductive Thinking
Gestalt theory is divided into two different schools of thought: reproductive and productive thinking. Reproductive thinking is focused on repeating old thoughts and actions; doing what has already been done. In this lesson, we'll explore the three different levels of reproductive thinking, which correspond to different levels of conscious awareness.

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

Reproductive thinking is a way to refine what is known; it aims for efficiency. This differs from productive thinking, which is a way to generate the new; it aims for insight. Reproductive thinking is essentially a matter of repeating the past: doing what you've done before and thinking what you've thought before. You can visualize reproductive thinking on a continuum. At one end is mindless repetition, in the middle is conscious systematization, and at the other end is incremental improvement, or kaizen thinking.

Let's start with the most basic level of reproductive thinking, reactive gator-brain or elephant-tether non-thinking, in which a given stimulus produces a fixed, predictable response. The way you brush your teeth each morning, from unscrewing the cap of your toothpaste, to the way you dab the bristles of your toothbrush, to the length and strength and shape of the strokes you take — all of these are performed with the minimum possible exertion of brain power. These kinds of patterns are not confined to personal habits. They can become even more powerful when transmitted from person to person.

Many organizations have based their entire systems on fossil ideas. Those organizations work on the "that's the way we do things around here" principle, not because people are actively opposed to new ideas but because the old ideas seem so natural. After all, they still work, more or less, so why challenge them?

Why do we tend to schedule meetings for an hour even though most of them probably don't need anywhere near 60 minutes and some might require a lot more? If you work in a large organization, all your common meeting rooms are probably mini-boardrooms with tables surrounded by chairs. Why? Are you planning to sit down to dinner? Come to think of it, why are all boardrooms modeled after private dining rooms? Why is the top row of your telephone keypad labeled 1 2 3, whereas the top row of your calculator is 7 8 9? Because both the telephone company and the calculator company say, "That's the way we do things around here."

Take a look around your home or work environment. See if you can identify how many things you, your family, or your colleagues do in the basic reproductive thinking mode. This may be harder to do than you think. These fossilized reproductive patterns are so strong and seem so "right" that we usually don't even notice that they're there.

Here's a quick test. When you pop bread into your toaster, do you always do so with the "bottom" of the bread down? Why? There is no real bottom of the bread. It doesn't make any difference which edge of the bread is up or down when you toast it, but it just seems natural to put the bottom edge down. Why not toast your slice sideways? It might be easier to take out of the toaster when it's done.

There are dozens of similar examples in your life. Why do you do things the way you do? What would happen if you decided to change? What new perspectives might you get?

So far, we've talked about only the most basic form of reproductive thinking, a mode of thought below the horizon of consciousness that causes us to respond to stimuli with predictable reactions. These fossilized ideas can save us time and energy, but they can also cause us to repeat patterns that aren't particularly useful or are no longer valid.

In the second level of reproductive thinking, we consciously reproduce learned thoughts and actions to achieve predictable results. Accountants have well-developed procedures for recording and analyzing financial numbers. Marketers go through checklists of activities to be sure they understand and address their markets effectively. Doctors ask their patients diagnostic questions with almost programmatic precision to get to the heart of the matter. Seasoned homemakers write aisle-by-aisle shopping lists to save time in the supermarket.

We often consciously repeat patterns because it makes good sense to do so. It makes us more efficient, more proficient, and less likely to omit crucial steps. This higher level of reproductive thinking is a wonderful asset. It marshals proven methodologies and approaches to design processes that are fast, efficient, and defect-free.

An example to consider is the Shouldice Hernia Centre.
One of the more common human ailments is the abdominal hernia, which is caused by a weakening of the muscles that line the abdominal wall. When this happens, the abdomen can bulge through the muscle wall. If left untreated, the condition can cause complications and even death. But hernias are relatively easy to diagnose, and effective surgical hernia repair techniques have been available since the late nineteenth century.

Typically, fixing a hernia involves pushing the bulge back in and either patching the abdominal wall or stitching it closed. The operation takes about 90 minutes, requires a general anesthetic and costs around $5,000. The average failure rate in hospitals across North America is 10 to 15 percent within five years, requiring that the procedure be repeated.

There is a small hospital in Canada just north of Toronto that specializes in hernia procedures. It's called Shouldice Hernia Centre. Its founder, Edward Shouldice, developed a unique surgical approach for correcting the condition during World War II, and since then hernias have been the Shouldice Center’s business. Exclusively. Its 10 full-time surgeons perform over 7,500 hemiorrhaphies each year. I imagine that if you arrived at their doors wanting a Band-Aid for a cut finger, they'd send you somewhere else.

At Shouldice, a hernia procedure takes not 90 minutes but 45. The patient is under a local anesthetic (you can actually talk to your surgeons while they perform the operation). The average cost is about half that of general hospitals, and fewer than 1 percent of Shouldice patients have a recurrence after the repair. Each Shouldice surgeon performs 600 to 800 procedures a year, more than most general surgeons do in a career. When it comes to hemiorrhaphies, these people are reproductive thinking geniuses. They can anticipate and correct anomalies and complications on the fly, they can pinch hit for each other at a moment's notice, and it's a fair bet some of them could even continue an operation in the dark. Shouldice Hernia Centre represents this second level of reproductive thinking, deliberately following proven patterns, at its finest.

The third level of reproductive thinking is kaizen thinking: consciously following well-established, proven patterns while looking for ways to improve them. Kaizen comes from the Japanese. It literally means "good change" (kai = "change," zen = "good"). Kaizen has been the foundation and rallying cry of a variety of related productivity and quality movements in the United States and other modern industrial countries: continuous quality improvement (CQI), total quality management (TQM), quality circles, and Six Sigma, among others. Toyota and General Electric are famous for their use of it.

Ironically, kaizen is both the most useful form of reproductive thinking and the most dangerous. It focuses on continually monitoring and refining processes, products, and procedures, but also provides the illusion of innovation under the guise of incremental change.

Kaizen is characterized by the principle of incremental change. It holds that each day a process can be made a little bit better than it was the day before. Kaizen has provided substantial benefits. It has been used to make production lines more reliable, reduce medical errors, and speed up emergency response times. But kaizen has its limits. No amount of incremental change will turn an adding machine into a spreadsheet.

Here's one way to visualize the kind of incremental change — and its limitations — represented by kaizen thinking. Imagine taking an excellent print of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, placing it on a high-end color copier, and pushing the button. Out will come a pretty good but slightly inferior version of the original. Now copy the copy, copy that copy, and so on. Each copy will be a slightly less faithful version of the last. Let's say you do this a hundred times, so your final version is still recognizable, but its colors are wrong, it's blurry, and it's lost its magic.

Now take your hundred sheets and examine them in reverse order. As you flip through the pages, you see that each one is an improvement over the last; each image is incrementally better than the one before it. Finally, you have an image almost indistinguishable from Leonardo's painting: near perfection. But as beautiful as it is, it will never be anything other than the Mona Lisa. No matter how many pages there are in your sequence, it will never become a Picasso.

Each level of reproductive thinking — rote repetition, conscious systematization, and continuous improvement — can be a powerful asset. Many organizations that have focused on it, particularly on kaizen, have prospered. But reproductive thinking alone can't do the whole job. It may be great for producing zero defects, but it will never produce breakthrough change.
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